Florida Raises the Stakes in the 2012 Republican Primaries

By moving up its primary, the Sunshine State is forcing candidates to spend big out of the gate. Kirsten Powers on why that’s good news for Mitt Romney.

The Sunshine State just gave Mitt Romney another reason to smile.

Not only has Romney clawed his way back to the top of several presidential polls—with archrival Rick Perry seemingly in free fall—but he stands to benefit the most from Florida’s decision last week to move up its primary by more than a month, to Jan. 31.

A survey of multiple GOP and Democratic strategists drew the same conclusion: Florida’s decision only helps Romney in his quest for the White House.

Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole’s presidential campaign, says “Florida has jumped the rails and super front-loaded the calendar, which is a big advantage for the Romney campaign. Romney’s campaign is experienced enough to want this to start quickly and end fast. Most pols fail to understand that the calendar sets a campaign strategy more than a line of attack in a debate.”

As former Clinton White House aide Paul Begala told me, “Napoleon said ‘God is on the side of the big battalions.' That’s not always true in politics, but usually. Romney has the most money. He has also seemed the least accident prone and has been the most consistent.” A compressed schedule gives the Texas governor, who has surprised Begala with his repeated stumbles, “less time to recover” if he continues his gaffe-prone performance.

Now, according to a Republican National Committee official, New Hampshire and Nevada are “playing a game of chicken” to see what the other does before they move their dates up. Iowa is in turn waiting on them before setting its first-in-the-nation caucuses, now likely to be Jan. 3.

Former Clinton adviser Doug Schoen described Florida’s decision as a “domino” that will “move Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina up. And with Romney consolidating and Perry collapsing, this only works to Romney’s advantage.”

Indeed, following Florida’s announcement, the South Carolina Republican Party lashed out, sniping that “a nine-person committee brought chaos to the 2012 calendar” which left South Carolina no choice but to create more chaos by moving up its date to Jan. 21.

The RNC is displeased that its schedule, carefully planned to allow more states to play a role in choosing the nominee, has been upended. Party officials now face exactly what they sought to avoid: a compressed schedule right out of the gate. That means the game is set up to favor whoever gets early momentum and has the resources to fund strong operations in each of the early states.

By catapulting itself into the first month of the primary season, Florida offers a unique problem for candidates that the other early states don’t: it’s very expensive. Florida is a diverse state with many media markets and constituencies. It offers essentially three or four very different political demographics—seniors and snowbirds, Miami Cubans, more conservative Panhandle residents, and the cosmopolitan central state residents—which require different messaging.

“You can ‘live off the land’ in Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire, but Florida is a media state. You can’t rely on retail politics there,” says Ed Rollins, Michele Bachmann’s former campaign manager. “You need a minimum of $1 million to $2 million a week in TV and at least three weeks of [the campaign] focusing on Florida.”

And then there is the third-rail issue that is particularly electric in a state with so many retirees.

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Perry’s view of Social Security as an unconstitutional “Ponzi scheme” could stop him dead in his tracks among blue-haired Florida voters. Romney has positioned himself more adeptly on this issue, standing up for the popular entitlement program, while the other candidates have stayed fairly vague.

As long as the Republican candidates “don’t take too extreme of a position, they are fine,” says Schoen. “The less specificity they have the better. The problem with Perry is that he said something extreme and didn’t offer a plan. If he said ‘it’s a Ponzi scheme and here is how I want to stabilize it,’ that would be one thing. But to say ‘turn it back to the states’ is scaring people without giving anyone an alternative.”

So how does all of this affect the Democrats?

“Any process that makes it harder for Perry to get nominated is bad for the president,” says Democratic strategist Steve McMahon. If Florida stuck with its original date “and the ‘ankle biters’—the third-tier candidates—had dropped out and it’s mano-a-mano, Perry would have a better chance.” Instead, with a tight calendar, most of those wannabes will be hanging on and nipping at Perry’s heels—splintering the opposition to Romney in a key mega-state.